Putting the Jib on
“In fact, as far as the driving’s concerned, the Minis are much more important characters than the drivers themselves. “– Producer Michael Deeley, Commentary track, The Italian Job (1969)
“This movie’s like a love story, actually.” By way of introducing his part in re-making The Italian Job, director F. Gary Gray recalls the first time he heard from Sherry Lansing, urging him to read a script. Excited by the call from the super-producer, he never specifically explains how the movie’s “like a love story” (except at its most obvious everyone’s-in-love-with-money angle), it’s likely that he’s naming his sense of luck and passion, not to mention his thrill at being jumped up to A-List Talent with the movie’s big fat summertime success.
Smartly, and maybe even respectfully, Paramount’s DVD release of 2003’s The Italian Job is accompanied by the DVD release of the original 1969 version. It should be proclaimed right off that the high point of both DVDs is the fact that they offer numerous chances to see the beloved Mini Coopers speeding over lawns, up and down stairs, and through tunnels (metro and sewer) — these cute little autos provide lots of repetitive pleasures as they bounce and careen. That said, a comparison of the films doesn’t exactly make the “love story” look good; actually, it reveals where the 2003 version gets it best material, namely, the twisting of the standard heist movie shenanigans so as to include the Minis, and much rattling and conniving among dapper thieves.
In the Peter Collinson version, this means watching Michael Caine during his enchanting youth (even back then he was making four movies a year), accompanied by a bright Quincy Jones soundtrack. The fundamental storyline in both films involves an outrageous robbery; in the first, Caine’s Charlie Coker undertakes to steal $4 million in gold bullion during rush hour traffic in Torino, under cover of an England versus Italy football match, which only underlines the film’s rah-rah British ingenuity nationalism. Colorful and lively, Collinson’s movie features a predictably oddball turn by Benny Hill as the team’s computer tech, who happens to be obsessed with overweight women
The 1969 DVD compounds this enjoyment with a few extras, including a wry and informative commentary track by producer Michael Deeley and Matthew Field, author of the book, The Making of The Italian Job, three interlocking “making of” documentaries (the third and most informative focused on the car chase, featuring much love for driver Rémy Julienne), and a deleted scene (the entirely entertaining “Skater’s Waltz” car dance). Observing some of the many wrecked cars (Ferraris and Minis), Field asks Deeley about the obstacles posed by all the driving demanded by the script. In fact, one obstacle was insurmountable, the producer recalls: “Michael at that time,” he says, “did not drive a car. He could just about manage the idea of pulling up at three miles an hour, which he does later in the film, in front of a hotel.” (Consider this in contrast to the four weeks of “driving school” endured by the several principals in Gray’s film, documented on the 2003 DVD in the not-so-interesting featurette, “The Italian Job: Driving School.”)
The conversation between Field and Deeley doesn’t follow a path so much as it strings together observations about the good old days. How did Deeley decide whether to buy new cars or shells? “That’s one of the problems [for] producers, is where to let the money be spent. You certainly wouldn’t want to have somebody go up to the top of a mountain in Switzerland to buy edelweiss to make a wreath you’re not going to notice. There are not many directors who are worth that sort of huge degree of detail. Ridley Scott’s obviously the exception.” At another point, he notes, “Sometimes pictures are over-designed, which is not a flaw with this one, but it does happen.”
The highly over-designed 2003 Italian Job offers no commentaries, but instead, several, repetitive documentaries (“Pedal to the Metal: The Making of The Italian Job, Putting the Words on the Page for The Italian Job, High Octane: Stunts from The Italian Job), plus a couple of uninteresting deleted scenes. In “The Pedal to the Metal,” a producer notes that Gray’s primary strength is that he “brought a great sense of style, a great visual style. He comes out of music video originally, so he’s very visual and very visually oriented.” (This would be opposed to someone with a background in movie or tv directing, where visual style is less specifically demanded?)
As well, Donald Sutherland says, “He stands on the set with the actors,” that is, he doesn’t sit behind a monitor or on some other location. Apparently, this is unusual for today’s directors, who tend to use the technology at hand to imagine the film on a screen. The result of Gray’s hands-on approach is a raft of good performances (though no one mentions anywhere the apparent trouble over Edward Norton’s mostly phone-in performance, in a role reportedly taken under duress, when Paramount exercised a contract option it had held since his breakout role in Primal Fear , threatening legal action if he refused). Here Charlie Coker is played by Mark Wahlberg (who admits, in “Pedal to the Metal,” that he was not even thinking about taking another remake, having starred in Planet of the Apes  and The Truth About Charlie ), with the added “dimension” of a girl, Stella (Charlize Theron), daughter of the deadmeat character, John Bridger (Sutherland).
Stella is introduced right away, in a pose that underlines just how much she is The Girl. Her veteran safecracker father John calls her on his cell from Venice. He’s skipped parole and is about to embark on one last job, after which he promises to be straight. On the other end of the phone call, he smiles endearingly and promises to send her a present (“It’s shiny!”). But she knows, as you do, that as soon as John utters the words “last job” to his darling girl, that his fate is sealed.
The Venice caper involves stealing $35 million in gold bullion (quite the leap from 1969’s four). As capers go, it does look splendid, with ornate architecture, St. Mark’s Square, some fancy cutting of floors and speeding of boats. John’s crew includes his favorite student, master-planner Charlie; driver/womanizer Handsome Rob (Jason Statham); computer nerd Lyle (Seth Green); explosives expert Left Ear (Mos Def); and inside man Steve (Norton). Though they get away with the gold, Steve double-crosses them, steals the gold, and shoots John dead in the process (Wahlberg’s efforts at crying over the body against an icy Austrian Alps background are, in a word, painful).
The survivors are instantly beset by a need for vengeance. A year later, they locate their mark in Los Angeles, whereupon Charlie seeks out Stella, who’s working as a super-talented safecracker for the Philadelphia PD. While it appears that she’s gone into this line of work in order to get through her own very mixed up feelings about her mostly absent father (admiration, love, resentment, anger), she only needs a few reflective moments, artfully posed with that shiny necklace her father sent her before he died, to say yes.
The second, climactic heist (the one in Torino in the first film) here takes place in L.A., where the crew means to steal the bullion back from Steve, who has oddly stored it in his mansion. The film takes much time laying out the hypertechnical hoo-ha: the surveillance equipment, the vehicles, the detonation sequences, and the computer hijinks. While Charlie, Stella, and Handsome Rob drive their Minis along sidewalks, up and down subway stairs, and through subway tunnels, Steve watches from an appropriately menacing black helicopter, such that most of Norton’s performance here is rendered as tedious reaction shots, as he mutters, “Hmmm, what are you up to, Charlie?” As this silliness suggests, the film’s primary conflict is between good son Charlie and bad son Steve. Fortunately, Theron provides more compelling moments, as Stella works through her stressful relationships with Steve, Charlie, and her dead dad.